Monday, December 10, 2012


The Israeli elections are coming up on January 22, and the 37 “lists” competing run the gamut from communist, pro-marijuana, pirate (yes, pirate), and anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox to green, nationalistic, and anti-Zionist Arab.  Other than the fact that they are both democratic and the fact that the voters complain about their choices, there is little in common between the American presidential and the Israeli parliamentary elections. 

Although the media might focus on the personalities of those at the head of a party, Israelis do not elect a prime minister.  Each party assembles its “list” of candidates.  Because the number of seats a party gets in the 120-member Knesset reflects the percentage of votes the party receives out of the total votes cast, the higher one is on the list, the more likely the candidate is to get a seat in the Knesset.  A candidate’s place on the list is decided either in a party primary, by a party committee, or by the leader of the party.  The fighting for position is intense. 
When an Israeli voter enters the voting booth, he or she does not see a list of the candidates.  Usually the voter sees the name of the parties and the name of the leader of each party.  The voter votes for the party.  Unique among democracies, Israel has no districts. Each person on the list who becomes a Knesset member represents the whole of Israel.  The threshold for a Knesset seat is only two percent of the vote, so virtually anyone can, and many often do, form their own party and win a few seats.
The leader of the party that receives the most votes does not necessarily become the Prime Minister.  In recent years no party has received the 61 votes to rule on its own and to decide who will be Prime Minister.  They have had to form coalitions.  For example, in the last election Kadima leader Tzipi Livni received one more vote than Likud leader Bibi Netanyahu.  However, Netanyahu was able to put together a coalition with other parties to form a majority of the Knesset and to become the Prime Minister.
Here is a rundown of the major parties contesting the current election and the likely, but in no way certain, results:

The Left (for lack of a better label):
--10-12 seats:  An anti-Zionist combination of Balad, an Arab nationalist party, United Arab List/Ta’al, more  a collection of people than a party with moderate Islamists and a leading Beduin, and Hadash, an Arab-Jewish party with Communist roots that may now be supportive of a two-state solution.
--3-5 seats:  Meretz:  An old left party that has hung on over the years and may now gain as Labor moves to the center on security issues.  No. 3 on the list is openly gay and No. 5 is an Arab.  40% of the candidates are women. 
The Center:  If egos and personalities were not a factor, these parties could form an alliance and present a united choice to voters.  But, then, this is politics, not fantasy. 
--20 seats:  Labor:  Declining since 1992, Labor is now having a revival resulting from Kadima’s fall and its new leader, Shelly Yachimovich, moving it to the center on foreign policy.  With the social protests of 2011 and the widening gap between the rich and poor, the Party’s social welfare ideology is proving attractive.

--disappearing?:  Kadima: Ariel Sharon’s breakaway party from Likud when he decided to pursue the Gaza withdrawal, the party has gone through a succession of leaders since his stroke and is searching for identity and ideology.  It may have the footnote in history that says it went from 28 seats in the current Knesset to zero in the next one. 
--10 seats: Yesh Atid:  Former journalist Yair Lapid and his friends formed a party with centrist appeal:  a moderate foreign policy and an ideology best described as “those who give, get.”  Without the aggressively antagonistic attitude toward the ultra-Orthodox of his late father Tommy Lapid and his Shinui Party, Lapid advocates that those who pay taxes, serve in the military, and otherwise contribute to society should be the ones who receive its benefits and support.
--10 seats: Tzipi Livni Party: Apparently honest and well-intentioned but unable to play well with others, the former Foreign Minister and Kadima leader has formed her own party and named it after herself.  Attracting former Labor leaders Amir Peretz and Amnon Mitzna, some have nicknamed it the “Party of Losers.” 
The Right (for lack of a better label):
--40 seats:  Likud/Beitenu:  The recent merger of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud, which currently holds 27 seats, and Foreign Minister Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu Party, which currently holds 15.  The merger is Lieberman’s only way of possibly shedding his Russian-only, nationalistic, and criminal aura in his quest to become prime minister.  While the move holds Lieberman at bay for awhile, many see it as ill-advised for Netanyahu.  They argue that Likud would have picked up seats on its own and then could have formed another coalition with Israel Beitenu, resulting in a bigger gain. 

--15 seats:  Habayit Hayehudi:  A conglomeration of the old National Religious Party and like-minded folks, the party has attempted to become more modern and attractive.  It has the youngest list, with an average age of 48, and 25% of its candidates are women.  It has made a special outreach to English speakers. 
--0 seats?:  Power to Israel is an alliance of two extreme right parties.  They may not make the two percent threshold needed for representation.
Religious Right/Ultra-Orthodox:
12-15 seats:  Shas, with ultra-Orthodox Sephardic leaders and a reliable base of traditional Sephardic followers, Shas has been willing to join coalitions in return for state resources for its institutions.  Once its aging spiritual leader dies, the party’s future will be questionable.  A small group recently broke away, arguing that the party should be more supportive of the State and that its members should serve the country.
5-6 seats:  Yehudat Hatorah:  An alliance of two parties, one formerly anti-Zionist that now supports a strong state and one that does not like the idea of a secular state but whose members are increasingly integrated into it. 
Unlike most modern democracies where the economy and internal factors are the overriding concerns of voters, Israel’s security situation and the upheaval in its neighborhood dominate elections.  While there has been increasing concern about the economy, more than 50% of the public still says that security and foreign affairs are the top factors in their vote. 
Given the security situation, the feeling among many that the Palestinians are not really interested in making peace, the feeling that much of the world is against Israel, and the lack of unity in the center/left, most pundits expect Likud/Beitenu to receive the most votes and Netanyahu to form the next governing coalition.  But, as in politics everywhere, it’s not over ‘til it’s over.  Just ask George H.W. Bush and Shimon Peres. 



  1. Good analysis, quite informative.

  2. I’ve never quite gotten my head around this kind of election. So a voter is presented with names of parties and then, depending on how the vote in that district for a party goes, the party’s choice for that seat represents seat?

    That seems ridiculous to me.

    For all our faults here in the US, it seems to me that the election of a particular person, not a particular party, makes perfect sense. Of course, we have gerrymandering, undue influence of money and all kinds of other maladies to deal with here, but in the end if a particular candidate is popular in a particular district, regardless of their party affiliation, that person should have a straight shot at getting elected, as long as the voters are fully aware of his party affiliation (if any) and whatever funds are raised (from whom) spent on behalf of the candidate (and how).

    What I am missing?

  3. You missed something I said in my piece, and that is that there are no districts. Each party puts together a list of their people running for the Knesset. You vote for the party. The number of seats awarded that party for the entire country reflects the percentage of vote the party got throughout the country. One of the most obvious problems arising from this is that a member of the Knesset does not feel accountable to a particular group of voters, either because they specifically voted for him or her or because they are from a district he represents.

    There has been much discussion of changing the system. The Israel Democracy Institute (,il) has produced a proposal for changes in governance which included this subject.

  4. I was having a difficult time figuring out the vote totals. That party primary slotted, and voter proportional system makes my American mind work overtime to keep up -:)

  5. Thanks for your perspective and updates. Keep 'em coming!

  6. You forgot to mention Shaul Mofaz. He is a dark horse. I live in Sephardi neighborhood and people here feel that the Ashkenazim left Kadima because they do not want a Sephardi or Oriental Jew to head the country. This may sound crazy but that is how they feel and I expect Shaul Mofaz may do better than Tzippi Livni especially as he embraced social justice concerns.

    I do not think we are going to elections at all because I fear that the Syrian situation is going to get us into a major war and elections will be postponed. Hopefully I am wrong, but if the US or its allies interfere in any way in Syria, Syria together with the Hezbollah and possibly Iran will attack Israel.

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